Capitals Start Fast, Then Fizzle Out

Washington's Dainius Zubrus puts the puck past Atlanta goaltender Johan Hedberg to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead midway through the first period.
Washington's Dainius Zubrus puts the puck past Atlanta goaltender Johan Hedberg to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead midway through the first period. (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 4, 2006

The Washington Capitals played perhaps their best 30 minutes of the season to open last night's game against the Atlanta Thrashers.

Unfortunately for them, one and a half periods remained. The Capitals let a two-goal lead slip away, came back to tie it, then surrendered another score seconds into the third period and lost, 4-3, in front of an announced crowd of 12,834 at Verizon Center.

"I thought we came out with some energy," Capitals defenseman Brian Pothier said. "Obviously, we fell asleep for a few minutes in the second and they are a good enough team, they have good enough guys who can hurt you. You just can't take a nap against a team like that."

Which is exactly what the Capitals did after taking a 2-0 lead early in the second period. In the span of 3 minutes 17 seconds, Jon Sim, Greg de Vries and Slava Kozlov all scored, turning a two-goal Thrashers deficit into a one-goal lead.

"We've had leads plenty of times this year and blown them, and that's something we have to turn around," Chris Clark said.

Dainius Zubrus's second goal of the night tied the score at 3 in the final seconds of the period. But Capitals goaltender Olie Kolzig couldn't stop Steve Rucchin's ordinary backhander 27 seconds into the third. That goal, and a handful of critical saves by Atlanta's backup goaltender Johan Hedberg, helped the Thrashers snap their two-game slide and improve to 3-0 over their Southeast Division rival. Hedberg finished with 24 stops.

The Capitals departed immediately after the game for Philadelphia, where they will face the Flyers tonight at Wachovia Center. They probably couldn't get there fast enough.

"We did not play well the last 10 minutes of the second period," said Alex Ovechkin, who picked up a pair of assists. "I don't know what is wrong with us. That period was no good. In the third period, I don't know how Rucchin scored."

It was a surprising turn of events for a Capitals team that controlled the game early. Zubrus opened the scoring at 12:10 of the first period on the power play, and Clark tallied a shorthanded goal 1:36 into the second to extend the home team's edge to two. For a while, it appeared the Capitals might build upon the momentum generated by their successful 2-1-1 road trip against the Northwest Division.

And they would have, if not for their brief letdown, which began with Sim whipping a pass from Ilya Kovalchuk past Kolzig at 11:35 to make it 2-1.

The game swung in Atlanta's favor, and de Vries capitalized, firing a shot that deflected off of Capitals defenseman Jamie Heward's skate and into Washington's net at 14:17. Thirty-five seconds later, Kozlov poked a loose puck past Kolzig to put the Thrashers ahead 3-2. Both goals came with the teams skating four-on-four.

Zubrus's second goal of the game, with 5.3 seconds remaining in the second period, sent the Capitals into the second intermission tied at 3. But it didn't come without controversy.

The referee initially waived off the goal, gesturing that it had been knocked into the net by Clark's glove. Zubrus immediately argued, and after lengthy review by the video goal judge, it was ruled that Zubrus had swept the puck in with his stick.

The tie didn't last long. Rucchin raced down the right wing and flipped a backhander over Kolzig. The shot appeared to change trajectory after hitting a defender's stick.

"Likely the worst thing for a goaltender is to come out of the break with a scoring chance in the first 30 seconds," said Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon, a former NHL goalie. "You would like to break in with a couple of shots from 20 feet."

The Capitals had several opportunities to tie the score late in the third period, but a shot by Alexander Semin hit the cross bar and Matt Pettinger missed a virtually empty net.

"We have a lead, we have to know how to play with the lead," Clark said. "It's not sitting back and playing totally defensive, but it's not taking too many chances. We took too many chances."

Capitals Notes: Sim's goal was his 10th in 17 career games against Washington. Late in the third period, Sim was sent to the penalty box for tripping Ovechkin with his leg. Ovechkin went down hard but remained in the game. . . .

The Capitals have been out-shot in all but two games.

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